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'Knife Fight' Or Russian 'Columbine'? Contradictions Swirl In Perm School Attack 

A vehicle from the Russian Emergencies Ministry stands parked near a local school in Perm after two assailants wearing masks injured schoolchildren and a teacher with knives on January 15.
A vehicle from the Russian Emergencies Ministry stands parked near a local school in Perm after two assailants wearing masks injured schoolchildren and a teacher with knives on January 15.

The two teenage boys were armed with knives when they entered the fourth-grade classroom in Russia's Urals city of Perm on January 15. Witness accounts suggest that a premeditated attack ensued, leaving one teacher and nine young students hospitalized with knife wounds.

Russian authorities, however, are painting a different picture of an incident that is drawing comparisons to the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado that left a total of 15 people dead.

Regional police have both issued statements saying that the violence erupted after an argument broke out between the two knife-wielding teenage boys, one of whom was reportedly a current student at Perm's School No. 127.

The regional branch of the powerful federal Investigative Committee said in a January 15 statement that the teacher, 46-year-old Natalya Shagulina, and several students were injured after they "tried to stop" the fight between the two suspects.

Russian state media has largely taken its cue from these official statements, characterizing the incident as a "fight" that spun out of control. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, meanwhile, urged the media not to jump to conclusions.

"This is a knife fight between students at a school. It is not an outside attack on a school. Let's wait for the opinions of experts," Peskov was quoted as saying January 15.

But witness accounts given to RFE/RL and other media outlets suggests that the two suspected assailants -- reportedly both 16 years old -- were acting in coordination.

The grandmother of a fourth-grader injured in the incident told RFE/RL's Russian Service that the teacher was the first to be attacked, and that the assailants began stabbing anyone who came near them in the ensuing panic. One of the attackers was standing near the door, she said, citing her granddaughter's account.

"They placed my granddaughter face down on the desk and stabbed her twice in the neck with a knife," the grandmother said on condition of anonymity. "Some of the kids made it to the exit, including my little girl."

'They Started Slashing'

While federal state TV networks characterized the incident as the result of an altercation between the two assailants, other Russian state media cited witness accounts contradicting this portrayal.

"There was no fight between the two older students. And the teacher didn't try to separate them," Russia's state-backed international news network, RT, quoted a woman identified as a mother of one of the fourth graders in the classroom as saying.

"These two guys in black masks came in, and then almost silently removed the knives from their sheaths and started slashing the teacher's neck. This is what my daughter told me," RT cited the woman, identified as Inessa Titova, as saying.

Precisely how the suspects sustained their injuries remains unclear.

At least one of the suspected assailants was linked in media reports to a social-media group related to the Columbine massacre, in which two students killed 13 people and wounded more than 20 others before taking their own lives.

Russian Children's Ombudswoman Anna Kuznetsova (file photo)
Russian Children's Ombudswoman Anna Kuznetsova (file photo)

The office of the Kremlin's top official for children's rights, Anna Kuznetsova, said in a January 16 statement that one of the suspects had a record of violent behavior toward fellow students as early as 2012. It added that the boy's parents had asked regional social services for help last year, but that instead the parents themselves had been fined.

"This tragedy might not have happened," Kuznetsova was quoted as saying, citing what she called the "unprofessionalism of experts" and a "lack of communication and consistency in the work of state agencies."

Kuznetsova a day earlier had criticized what she called insufficient security measures at the school. "Can it be that there was no one other than 10-year-old children to stop the hooligans," she wrote on Facebook.

'Convenient Explanation'

Citing unidentified sources, the Kommersant newspaper reported on January 16 that investigators had questioned the two suspected attackers earlier in the day.

The attack at the Perm school comes in the wake of a September 5 attack by a 15-year-old student in a suburb of Moscow. The schoolboy attacked his teacher with a meat cleaver and shot her in the face with an air gun.

Anton Orekh, a political commentator for the liberal-minded Russian radio broadcaster Ekho Moskvy, said violent incidents like those as the Perm school force Russia to "take a long, hard look at an array of problems" and criticized federal television channels for giving insufficient coverage

"You can give any diagnosis and play up the problem any way you want. But you can't pretend that nothing serious happened," Orekh wrote.

Sergei Smirnov, editor in chief of the Russian news portal MediaZona -- which focuses on the country's criminal-justice system -- told RFE/RL that authorities' portrayal of the incident as the result of a fight between the suspected assailants appears "strange."

"Based on what we know, it was a premeditated attack," Smirnov said. "But a fight is a convenient explanation. No one in the local authorities wants to take responsibility and make any bombshell statements."

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.